Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 197
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Listening Posts

A new finding reveals an old management principle at work in customer service settings.

It is said of Michelangelo that he created a sculpture by "freeing" the figure he found trapped in the stone, releasing it by chipping away the covering that enveloped it. We can imagine him at the task, sensing what needed to be done, and his results cannot be praised too highly. Somehow, Michelangelo received communication from the stone that guided his efforts, but for everyone else, the stone was silent.

Consider next the example of a young mother confronted by her crying infant daughter. One by one she checks off possible explanations for the distress: a wet diaper, gas, hunger, attention, sleep, and so on. But an itch on the big toe of her left foot, or a sliver in her right hand would probably not be discovered, and the distraught infant would likely be inconsolable. Very often, we see just that.

What if the infant could speak clearly and tell of the difficulty? What if the young mother could understand the infant as Michelangelo could understood the stone? That would direct the mother's efforts very efficiently, and mother and child would get along swimmingly.

The management principle exposed by these examples is known in the trade as feedback from the work itself, and its something managers try to design into jobs as much as they can. Imagine, for example, a car rolling down the assembly line. When a component fits perfectly in place and the power tools report the distinct sound of tightened bolts, then the car itself has told the production worker that his task is completed correctly.

Managers of retail businesses are slow to recognize this principle, according to Benjamin Schneider of the University of Maryland, but his recent research into customer perceptions of service may help change that.

Schneider conducted a longitudinal study which examined perceptions of customers and service employees over a 4-year period in 134 branches of a large midwestern bank. He checked factors we usually expect to lead to superior customer service, and he found clear evidence that they functioned as expected. Service employees who received adequate training, supportive supervision, computer support, and interdepartmental cooperation provided superior service that customers noticed. But Schneider also checked for the effect of customer feedback, and here he got a surprise.

Service employees who reported the greatest frequency of customer comments about service quality tended to become better service providers, and this change was reflected in perceptions of their customers years later. Most surprising, however, was the strength of this effect. It equaled all the other factors combined.

Schneider's conclusion is obvious. Customers have a powerful influence over service employees' behavior, and when this influence is harnessed, customer service will improve and customers will notice.

Managers have devised ways to learn customer perceptions, for example, surveys, reaction forms, and telephone canvasing. Unfortunately, these efforts often bypass service employees. Schneider believes this defeats the purpose. It is service employees who need to hear these comments. They can act upon them, just as the mother of the infant could in the earlier example if only her infant could speak.

What about a listening post for comments and criticisms . . . a prominent place where customers are invited to stop and comment. Staff the listening post with customer service employees rotating on 1-hour intervals. Think of it as in-service employee training, and expect employees to become more responsive to customer needs after a few shifts. With any luck, your customers will notice the difference.

Reference: Schneider, Benjamin, Susan White, and Michelle Paul (1998) Linking Service Climate and Customer Perceptions of Service Quality: Test of a Causal Model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83 (2), 150-163.

© Management Resources

Back to home page